February 12, 2021- Are you feeling more stressed than usual? We’re here to help you! February is American Heart Month, a time to focus on our cardiovascular health. Read on to learn about the connection between heart health and stress, plus ways to cope when you feel overwhelmed.
February is American Heart Month
Heart disease is the leading cause of death of people in the United States, according to The American Heart Association. Yes, even more than cancer, which follows at number two. For these reasons and many more, Heart Month is such an important time to not only spotlight the importance of cardiovascular health, but also encourage ourselves and others to start healthy habits.
But before we get into ways to strengthen our heart health, here’s the good news: Harvard Health reports that deaths due to cardiovascular disease, such as heart attacks and stroke, fell by about 36 percent between 2000 and 2014. We’d love to see that number drop even more! And luckily, there are plenty of powerful ways to take action and strengthen your heart health… hey, maybe even starting TODAY.
Stress and Heart Health: What’s the Connection?
Especially recently, with Coronavirus (COVID-19), stress is something we all likely deal with in different ways. While some are struggling to work from home and homeschool kiddos, other healthcare workers may be feeling completely overwhelmed in over-crowded hospitals. No matter why you’re feeling extra pressure, it’s important to check in with yourself about: a.) how stress makes you feel AND b.) what stress makes you do.
Here’s why: stress is linked to high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, both of which can increase one’s chance of heart attacks. Also, prolonged stress is known to trigger inflammation, another known instigator of heart issues. That said, it should be noted more data is needed to make a conclusive connection between stress and specific heart issues.
However, chances are, we don’t need a bunch of scientific studies to show us that stress impacts our behaviors. For some, chronic stress leads to poor dietary habits like under-eating or overeating. For others, stress zaps our energy, putting exercise and other healthy habits at the bottom of the to-do list. In this sense, stress starts a chain reaction of heart-damaging behaviors, like drinking more alcohol, reaching for greasy foods, or tossing and turning in bed at night.
Coronavirus, Heart Damage, and Stress in 2021 (and Beyond)
First: more research is needed to know specifics about the connection between COVID on cardiovascular health. However, some studies are indicating that many COVID-19 survivors experience "some type of heart damage, even if they didn't have underlying heart disease and weren't sick enough to be hospitalized." In the same report, doctors cite being concerned that more people could be at risk for heart problems down the line due to COVID.
Either way, heart health is incredibly important, and the best time to invest in your cardiovascular health is before it becomes an issue in the first place.
How To Strengthen Your Heart & Stress Less
The good thing is: since heart health and stress are inherently connected, when you prioritize de-stressing -- you’re inherently also prioritizing your heart health.
- Find an exercise you like: Studies show that when we enjoy exercise, we’re more likely to do it. So, find a physical activity that you look forward to. That could be walking, hiking, HIIT workouts, or yoga.
- Meditate: Meditation is linked to stress reduction, a boost in self-esteem, and improved productivity.
- Do breathing exercises: Taking deep breaths sends messages to our brain that it’s time to calm down and relax. In other words, when we take longer inhales and exhales -- it gives our minds a cue that we’re relaxed (even if we’re not quite there yet).
- Laugh: Ok, this may sound silly, but hear us out! Laughter is shown to relieve stress and tension, and even improve our immune systems and moods. So, turn on your favorite comedy or call a friend who puts a smile on your face.
Heart Healthy and Stress Busting Foods To Incorporate
Here’s a list of heart healthy foods for your next shopping trip, from broccoli and bell peppers to nuts and leafy greens.
- Foods rich in vitamin C: Bell peppers, broccoli, and sweet potatoes, are just some of the many good-for-you ingredients with Vitamin C.
- Nuts: Since nuts are loaded with antioxidants, zinc, and healthy fats, they’re good go-tos when you’re feeling munchy.
- Leafy greens: Leafy greens are rich in folate, which produces dopamine (a pleasure-inducing hormone). Plus they’re full of other vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
- Avocados: Known for nutritious benefits, avocados have vitamin K, vitamin C, potassium, and antioxidants.
- Fatty fish: Salmon, tuna, mackerel are full of omega-3s, which are known for their heart-healthy benefits.
Heart Healthy and Stress Busting Foods To Avoid
Now that you know what foods to grab, here are some food to avoid or eat/drink in moderation.
- Excess alcohol and caffeine: Alcohol and caffeine are known to make stressful situations even more stressful, due to elevating cortisol levels. Consider reaching for an herbal tea or glass of water instead.
- High sodium foods: While salt is essential to our diets, too much of it can lead to bloat, elevate blood pressure, and increase risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Processed foods: Some research shows that eating processed foods, especially foods high in refined sugar, can lead to feelings of depression. And it probably goes without saying that they’re not ideal from a heart perspective either.
The Takeaway: Prioritize Your Heart Health
Don’t let your heart health become an afterthought! Especially these days with never-ending stressful news headlines, find time to do more things that help you de-stress, whether that’s a walk around the block, bubble bath, or a good laugh!